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Officials Worry That Rebels in Iraq Are Shifting Their Sights

New Year's Eve attack on a Baghdad restaurant could signify a move toward easier targets.

January 02, 2004|From Associated Press

BAGHDAD — The New Year's Eve car bombing of an upscale Baghdad restaurant, which killed eight people, was a sign that opponents of the U.S.-led coalition forces might be shifting to civilian targets, U.S. and Iraqi officials said Thursday.

The so-called hard targets in Baghdad -- coalition complexes and Iraqi police stations -- are increasingly well guarded, pushing insurgents toward soft targets such as the Nabil restaurant, a U.S. military officer with the Army's 1st Armored Division said. He spoke on condition of anonymity.

"When terrorists can target coalition forces or Iraqi police," they will, said Lt. Gen. Ahmed Kadhem, deputy Iraqi interior minister and Baghdad chief of police. "If they can't, they go to an easier target, aiming at civilians."

He said security was being increased around hospitals and government buildings, and he called on schools to put up checkpoints and keep cars off their campuses.

Assailants have bombed civilian targets before, including the Baghdad headquarters of the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Both organizations pulled most of their foreign staff out of Iraq after those deadly attacks.

In a city where sandbagged checkpoints, concrete barriers and armed guards protect many potential targets, the Nabil was easy prey. On a busy street in an upscale neighborhood, the restaurant was protected by a lone armed guard and had no concrete barriers or sandbags to shield wealthy patrons from the car bomb that exploded Wednesday night as Iraqis and Westerners celebrated.

Col. Ralph Baker, commander of the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Armored Division, said the blast was caused by a car laden with about 500 pounds of explosives. He said reports that the attack was a suicide bombing were false and that officials had questioned witnesses who said they saw a man running from a vehicle before the blast.

No group has claimed responsibility for the bombing, but Baker said the U.S. military and Iraqi police were following up on a number of leads, which he did not detail.

Iraqi police pulled four bodies from the rubble immediately after the blast, and U.S. soldiers later found four bodies in the ruins of the restaurant, said Lt. Col. Peter Jones of the 1st Armored Division, which is responsible for security in Baghdad.

But Kadhem, the police chief, said five people -- all Iraqis -- were killed. There were no reports that foreigners were killed.

Two hospitals reported treating 35 wounded, including three Los Angeles Times reporters. The attack came despite tightened security amid warnings of possible holiday terrorism.

The foes of the U.S.-led occupation "want to slow down and stop the progress toward normalcy in Iraq," Jones said. "And what's more normal than having a New Year's Eve dinner with friends and family at a restaurant?"

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